Your brain is a powerhouse of neurological functions that keep your heart beating, your guts moving, your eyelids blinking and your experiences inventoried. You observe, learn and imagine because of the interwoven networks of neurons, chemicals, hormones and blood vessels.
When certain brain functions are disrupted by disease or trauma, you may experience dizziness, seizures, muscle spasms, emotional turmoil, trouble swallowing ... the list goes on and on.
One of the most common and life-altering brain malfunctions is dementia, a catchall term describing difficulty remembering, thinking or making decisions. Although it's projected that by 2040 around 14 million Americans will suffer from dementia, it's not a part of normal aging.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia. Other forms include:
- Vascular dementia, related to strokes or other issues with blood flow to the brain.
- Lewy body dementia, which causes movement or balance problems in addition to memory loss.
- Frontotemporal dementia, which causes disturbing changes in personality and behavior.
- Mixed dementia, a combination of, say, Alzheimer's and vascular dementia.
Thinking ahead. Because dementia isn't an inevitable result of getting older, you can take action today to prevent it. There's a lot of science about the effect your food choices have on your brain's health. These insights should spur you to adopt simple (and tasty!) nutritional habits that will help you avoid serious cognition problems. So let's take a look at the best of the brain food.
Best Bites: Two of the smartest brain-protecting bites are carrots and leafy greens. The carotenoids like lycopene and the vitamins riboflavin (B2) and folate (B9) found in carrots help brain networks work more efficiently and protect cognition as you age, according to a study from the University of Illinois published in NeuroImage. And a recent study in the Journal of Biological Chemistry found that a combination of substances in carrots and green tea can reverse Alzheimer's-like memory problems in lab mice. They seem to do it by reducing neuroinflammation and keeping amyloid beta from gumming up the brain's circuitry.
As for leafy greens, they deliver super-charged protection. In one five-year study that looked at the benefits of frequently eating spinach, kale, collards, greens and lettuce, elderly folks who ate at least 1.3 servings daily were found to end up 11 years cognitively younger than folks eating the fewest servings. The researchers concluded that the phylloquinone (vitamin K found in plants), lutein (a carotenoid, like in carrots) and folate in the greens were what protected cognition.
Putting it all together. So what's the smart way to put this brain food into your daily diet? The recent Harvard University investigation looked at data from 30 studies and established a baseline: Eat two servings of fruit and three of vegetables daily for the healthiest, longest life. Dr. Mike's research shows that if you extend this so you're replacing simple carbs (bread, pasta, chips) with vegetables, and getting nine servings of them daily, you'll have even more power to prevent chronic disease and dementia.
As a guide, take a look at the MIND diet - that's short for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. It'll add a weekly serving of fish, twice-weekly servings of berries, three daily servings of whole grains, plus beans, nuts, olive oil and a glass of wine to the mix of leafy greens and carrots. MIND also dramatically lowers saturated fat intake and cautions against eating red meat. The results? It's been found to reduce the risk for Alzheimer's by up to 53% and to slow down cognitive decline and improve verbal memory. The benefits are thought to come because it helps control high blood pressure, which is associated with developing dementia and prevents cerebral vascular problems that can cause dementia.
It's never too late to protect your brain. Start today: Have your biggest meal for lunch - maybe a salad with salmon. Enjoy a veggie dinner with spinach, walnuts and carrots, and green tea for a beverage. You'll be able to enjoy a younger brain tomorrow!
Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, tune into "The Dr. Oz Show" or visit www.sharecare.com.
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.